Returning to the Project: Red River Gorge, Kentucky

The moment when everything clicks and I trust my body to take over:

The boundary between what I can and cannot do becomes blurred.

During my Fall Break from school I went to the Red River Gorge, Kentucky with my mom. Last March, I went to the Red River Gorge for my Spring Break.  I began working on a climb called “Thanatopsis.” This climb is located at a sector of the ‘Red’ called the “Motherlode.” which is known for having the highest concentration of steep, hard climbs at the Red.

I have been going to the Red since I was nine years old, and I distinctly remember my first day at this crag. When I first hiked up through the forest path to the area I knew that I had never seen anything quite so steep, nor quite so tall before. There are few easy climbs at the Motherlode – the area is dense with climbs fit for elite climbers to work on. The climbs on the far right side and far left side of the cliff are less steep than the ones in the dead center of the cave. I tiptoed around the heart of the cave, acclimating to the steep climbing terrain and genuinely intimidated by how almost horizontal the climbs were.

Each year I have gone to the Red at some point. Fall is the season when the temperatures are best due to the crisp, forty to sixty degree temperatures and moderate rain. Spring is a good season to go as well, but there can be more humidity in the air and it tends to rain more often. During the winter months it is generally too cold to climb there unless you have really great circulation, (unlike me!). Contrarily, during the summer months it is too warm and humid to really expect great performance results beyond lots of sweat from grappling to stick on to sweaty rock. My first trip to the Red River Gorge was in June and I had no idea that there were seasons to this area and that I was visiting during one of the toughest times to climb. There were just so many options of potential lines to try that less than perfect temperatures did not bother me in the least.

Each year I have made a visit to the “Motherlode.” I have distinct memories from each climb that I have tried over the years between being nine years old and now 22 years old. After hiking in to the sector and standing in front of this massive bank? of cliff, I feel a strong sense of nostalgia. With each climb that I see, I recall a distinguishable memory of climbing that particular route. The struggles that I may have had, the frustration from falling, and the joy of reaching the top are individual memories to each climb. At the Motherlode I onsighted my first 5.13 and I also onsighted my first 5.14. Both of these achievements, separated by years, feel like close, distinctive moments.

When I arrived this trip, I could stand in front of all but one climb and remember the moment that I completed that particular route: All but Thanatopsis. For some reason, this climb felt really hard for me and I hadn’t even tried it. I had never seen anyone on it, and without any chalk on it, it just appears like a blank, steep rock face with few protrusions. Instead of checking out the moves, each trip I chose a different climb to try to complete. Finally in March, I decided that I needed to just put on my climbing gear and try it.

Though, that time I just had one week at the Red and, it being March, the weather was inconsistent. While I managed to have some days with good weather, I consistently fell on the climb. I felt like I had found my beta (solution) to the different moves, but I could not piece them together from the bottom to the top without falling. Climbing and failure happen to go together quite seamlessly: I fall way more often than I succeed. This trip, I had to leave without having succeeded.

Having Thursday through the following Tuesday off from school, I chose to spend this time trying Thanatopsis again. While driving to Kentucky, I was a little pessimistic about the weather forecast because a cold front was coming through and there was an 80% rain prediction for Friday and Saturday. According to my weather app, Friday was really cold and raining. However, with my mom being an optimistic trooper, we still hiked up to the Motherlode with our down jackets and hats on, through the mud, and to the cave. Due to the rock’s steep angle over the ground, the climbs were actually protected from the pouring sky. I warmed up and then went straight on to Thanatopsis to refresh the moves in my mind.

At first, the climbing felt unfamiliar and strenuous on my finger tendons. The holds were all so much smaller than I remembered and I couldn’t recall on what little pebbles I had placed my feet in order to be in the right body positioning to do each individual move. Thanatopsis is challenging because the “holds” for your finger tips and feet are barely bigger than the protrusion of two credit cards against a flat wall. For some of the harder moves, only with precise body positioning could I stay on the wall. Having to do powerful sections on the climb consecutively wears me down and my precision for the latter moves lessens. As I worked out the sections of the climb, though, I started reconnecting with the movement.

I tried the route again and again afterwards, falling at different points on the wall, and lowering down to the ground to rest and recuperate my muscles and tendons to try again.

By the end of the day, I was substantially more tired but convincingly more determined. I did some jumping jacks to warm up from the near freezing temperature and put back on my harness, chalk bag, and shoes, tied in to my rope, and started the climb.

I feel the connection with the natural elements. I feel the texture of the rock. The rock face is my opponent, yet I am working with it at the same time.  I am just moving. I am just moving through the sequences and visualizing myself succeeding. My mind is free from everything else. My thoughts are in a zone of their own. This zone is full of thought yet simultaneously blank. My motions execute the thoughts that I have. I think about the piece of rock that I am on, I fixate on the feel of it underneath my chalked hands.

 I reach the top.


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